Erik Palmer-Brown and Brooks Lennon celebrate a goal vs. Mexico - February 27, 2017


For the first time in 31 years, the US Under-20 men's national team beat Mexico in a competitive match.


You’d have to swing all the way back to 1986, to an Under-20 team that featured a Kasey Keller with hair, to find the last time a US U20 team downed Mexico in an official non-friendly. Monday’s 1-0 win for the Americans in the final stage of the Under20 CONCACAF Championship in Costa Rica was that big, that important, and that impressive.


Thanks to a headed goal by Sporting Kansas City defender Erik Palmer-Brown about a half hour into the match, the US can now dream bigger. This U20 team has taken its dings over the last cycle, but dole out the praise where it’s due. Because this was a breakthrough performance.


This doesn’t cinch up qualification to the U20 World Cup in South Korea, but it puts the US on the doorstep. Both Mexico and the US still have a game each against El Salvador, and the US only need a draw to ensure they advance. But they can also conceivably advance with a loss as well. In short, the US gave itself a significant bit of rope to work with.


Let’s take a deeper look into the machinery underneath the hood of this win.


How did it happen?


This US team was never set up to dominate possession. That’s never been US coach Tab Ramos’ modus operandi anyway. He prefers a midfield wound tight like a snare drum, only to explode into cacophonous noise once hit with brief moments of possession. Go back and watch how the US beat Colombia by this same scoreline in the Round of 16 at the 2015 Under-20 World Cup and you’ll see a similar performance. Coil like a snake, spring out for quick jabs and then withdraw.


Except this was even more impressive as a holistic performance. And it essentially revolved around Ramos’ decision pre-tournament to roll with what’s become an inverted sweeper in Erik Palmer-Brown.


Palmer-Brown was a center back, is a center back, and will likely always be a center back at the next level for Sporting KC. Ramos bucked the trend by starting him in the defensive midfield this tournament, a place where he’s played – albeit sparingly – at this level before. He was inconsistent there during the team’s first three games, but he was immense on Monday. With Palmer-Brown as a flipped-out sweeper, the U.S. had three natural central defenders up the spine. Mexico wanted to channel most everything it did through that central chute. The US simply won the numbers game over, and over, and over again with a sort of Bermuda Triangle of a no-fly zone in the middle.


This deployment more or less forced the Mexican Under-20 team, which doesn’t have any great crossers, to almost exclusively use its width and attempt to funnel from the outside-in, further away from goal. As a result, they never registered a single substantive shot on goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann and were largely relegated to half-chances and, as was more often the case, turnovers.


Tyler Adams The Great


There was another component – or two, to be more precise – to this team’s central dominance over Mexico. That was the two central midfielders deployed on a shelf above Palmer-Brown: the New York Red Bulls' Tyler Adams and former D.C. United academy player Eryk Williamson. And at least in sheer work rate, both had themselves a day to remember.


Adams in particular was probably the most critical cog on the field for the Americans. There was still no No. 10 in this US lineup, but on this day they didn’t need one thanks in large part to Adams.


In an ideal world, Adams is a No. 6 paired next to another one in a two-man defensive midfield, which gives him license to roam but also utilizes his defensive capabilities. In this tournament, when he hasn’t been injured, Adams has been deployed higher, as a sort of box-to-box raider. It’s had its spotty moments, but he seemed to pull the mechanism back a bit on Monday and focus mostly on being a tireless bee buzzing around the central third to bust up Mexico builds and restart attacks. And in this he was nearly flawless.


Mexico lost possession inside its own half at Adams’ hands so often that it almost became the most routine occasion in Mexico’s passing matrix. And when Mexico did flood past Williamson and Adams into the American half, the US had its hammer-and-anvil routine down. Palmer-Brown sat deep awaiting the charge while Adams and Williamson flew in from behind to slam them against Palmer-Brown’s craggy surface. It worked almost every time. Mexico was almost never dangerous in the American third.


Williamson deserves his shine for that too, but Adams was the pivot point. It was his unfailing, dogged effort that seemed to drag Mexico’s possession into the dumps so routinely, and the US’s press had its shining example in his afternoon.


The tried-and-true blueprint


The US hasn’t beaten Mexico competitively at this stage in so long that whatever youth blueprint they drew up then has been lost to the winds of time. But we do know where the US excels, and we do know how the senior team has done it against Mexico (notably in Dos-a-Cero form) in the past. Ramos added another chapter to that story with a coaching masterclass that should go directly into the syllabus.


It isn’t glamorous, and it isn’t perhaps where the US wants to be tactically in 25 years, but it works when you use it in conjunction with this player pool. And that’s speedy pressing, timely crossing and a lethality in set pieces. Those glorious, glorious set pieces.


The US got its goal via a corner kick, of course, but it was beautifully taken from start-to-finish in the sort of way Brutalist architecture is beautiful. There are none of the showy lines of Antoni Gaudi, but the perfection and rigid lines used in its construction is notable with the materials on hand. And Brooks Lennon’s pinpoint cross mixed with Palmer-Brown’s towering header was something to behold. Even better, it was so darn reproducible from an American standpoint.


It isn’t always possible to play this complete a defensive 90 minutes against Mexico at every level, but this is how it’s done in an ideal world. Choke off the oxygen in the middle to force Mexico onto its wider pegs. Utilize that American iron lung and harry ball-carriers all over the field for 90 tireless minutes. Press hard and hit fast on counters, breaks and builds limited to the sort of passes with which your comfortable. And finish your chances.


And at its best against arguably superior individual competition, this is the way the US operate at peak tempo. It’s how the senior team beat Spain in 2009 and how this very team beat Colombia two years ago. Now, it’s the formula the Americans used to take down Mexico on the road to the 2017 Under-20 World Cup.